Post-classical history

Chapter 1
The Norman Kings

1066 and All That

On Christmas Day 1066 Duke William of Normandy was acclaimed king of England in Westminster Abbey. It was an electrifying moment. The shouts of acclamation – in English as well as in French – alarmed the Norman guards stationed outside the abbey. Believing that inside the church something had gone horribly wrong, they set fire to the neighbouring houses. Half a century later, a Norman monk recalled the chaos of that day. ‘As the fire spread rapidly, the people in the church were thrown into confusion and crowds of them rushed outside, some to fight the flames, others to take the chance to go looting. Only the monks, the bishops and a few clergy remained before the altar. Though they were terrified, they managed to carry on and complete the consecration of the king who was trembling violently.’

Despite his victory at Hastings, despite the surrender of London and Winchester, William’s position was still a precarious one and he had good reason to tremble. It was to take at least another five years before he could feel fairly confident that the conquest had been completed. There were risings against Norman rule in every year from 1067 to 1070: in Kent, in the south-west, in the Welsh marches, in the Fenland, and in the north. The Normans had to live like an army of occupation, living, eating, and sleeping together in operational units. They had to build castles – strong points from which a few men could dominate a subject population. There may well have been no more than 10,000 Normans living in the midst of a hostile population of one or two million. This is not to say that every single Englishman actively opposed the Normans. Unquestionably there were many who co-operated with them; it was this which made possible the successful Norman take-over of so many Anglo-Saxon institutions. But there is plenty of evidence to show that the English resented becoming an oppressed majority in their own country. The years of insecurity were to have a profound effect on subsequent history. They meant that England received not just a new royal family but also a new ruling class, a new culture and language. Probably no other conquest in European history has had such disastrous consequences for the defeated.


1. Aerial photograph of Old Sarum: a graphic illustration of the problems facing the first post-Conquest generation. The Norman cathedral huddles close to the castle, itself built to defend a group of men too small to need the full extent of the prehistoric ramparts

Almost certainly this had not been William’s original intention. In the early days many Englishmen were able to offer their submission and retain their lands. Yet by 1086 something had clearly changed. Domesday Book is a record of a land deeply marked by the scars of conquest. In 1086 there were only four surviving English lords of any account. More than 4,000 thegns had lost their lands and been replaced by a group of less than 200 barons. A few of the new landlords were Bretons and men from Flanders and Lorraine but most were Normans. In the case of the Church we can put a date to William’s anti-English policy. In 1070 he had some English bishops deposed and thereafter appointed no Englishman to either bishopric or abbey. In military matters, the harrying of the north during the winter of 1069–70 also suggests ruthlessness on a new scale at about this time. In Yorkshire this meant that between 1066 and 1086 land values fell by as much as two-thirds. But whenever and however it occurred, it is certain that by 1086 the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy was no more and its place had been taken by a new Norman elite. Naturally this new elite retained its old lands on the Continent; the result was that England and Normandy, once two separate states, now became a single cross-Channel political community, sharing not only a ruling dynasty, but also a single Anglo-Norman aristocracy. Given the advantages of water transport, the Channel no more divided England from Normandy than the Thames divided Middlesex from Surrey. From now on, until 1204, the histories of England and Normandy were inextricably interwoven.

Since Normandy was a principality ruled by a duke who owed homage to the king of France this also meant that from now on ‘English’ politics became part of French politics. But the French connection went deeper still. The Normans, being Frenchmen, brought with them to England the French language and French culture. Moreover, we are not dealing with a single massive input of ‘Frenchness’ in the generation after 1066 followed by a gradual reassertion of ‘Englishness’. The Norman Conquest of 1066 was followed by an Angevin conquest of 1153–4; although this did not involve the settlement of a Loire Valley aristocracy in England, the effect of the arrival of the court of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine was to reinforce the dominance of French culture.

Whereas in 1066 less than 30 per cent of Winchester property owners had non-English names, by 1207 the proportion had risen to over 80 per cent, mostly French names like William, Robert, and Richard. This receptiveness to Continental influence means that at this time it is the foreignness of English art that is most striking. In ecclesiastical architecture, for example, the European terms ‘Romanesque’ and ‘Gothic’ describe the fashionable styles much better than ‘Norman’ and ‘Early English’. Although churches built in England, like manuscripts illuminated in England, often contain some recognizably English elements, the designs which the architects and artists were adapting came from abroad, sometimes from the Mediterranean world (Italy, Sicily, or even Byzantium), usually from France. It was a French architect, William of Sens, who was called in to rebuild the choir of Canterbury Cathedral after the fire of 1174. Similarly Henry III’s rebuilding of Westminster Abbey was heavily influenced by French models. Indeed so great was the pre-eminence of France in the fields of music, literature, and architecture, that French became a truly international rather than just a national language, a language spoken – and written – by anyone who wanted to consider himself civilized. Thus, in thirteenth-century England, French became, if anything, even more important than it had been before. From the twelfth to the fourteenth century a well-educated Englishman was trilingual. English would be his mother tongue; he would have some knowledge of Latin, and he would speak fluent French. In this cosmopolitan society French was vital. It was the practical language of law and estate management as well as the language of song and verse, of chanson and romance. The Norman Conquest, in other words, ushered in a period during which England, like the kingdom of Jerusalem, can fairly be described as a part of France overseas, Outremer; in political terms, it was a French colony (though not, of course, one that belonged to the French king) until the early thirteenth century and a cultural colony thereafter.

In western and northern Britain, beyond the borders of conquered England, lay peoples and kingdoms that retained their native identities for much longer. As independent peoples living in what were, by and large, the poorer parts of the island, they remained true to their old ways of life. Only gradually, during the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, did the Welsh and the Scots come to share in this French-led Europe-wide process of cultural homogenization. The time lag was to have profound consequences. By the 1120s French-speaking English intellectuals such as the historian William of Malmesbury were beginning to describe their Celtic neighbours as barbarians, to look upon them as lawless and immoral savages, pastoral peoples who lived in primitive fashion beyond the pale of civilized society but who occasionally launched horrifyingly violent raids across the borders. A new condescending stereotype was created, one which was to become deeply entrenched in English assumptions.

One of the ways in which English – and to a lesser extent Welsh and Scottish – society changed in this period creates special problems for the historian. This is the tremendous proliferation of written records which occurred during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Many more documents than ever before were written and many more were preserved. Whereas from the whole of the Anglo-Saxon period about 2,000 writs and charters survive, from the thirteenth century alone there are uncounted tens of thousands. Of course the 2,000 Anglo-Saxon documents were only the tip of the iceberg; many more did not survive. But this is true also of the thirteenth century. It has, for example, been estimated that as many as 8 million charters could have been produced for thirteenth-century smallholders and peasants alone. Even if this were to be a rather generous estimate, it would still be true that whole classes of the population, serfs for example, were now concerned with documents in ways that previously they had not been. Whereas in the reign of Edward the Confessor only the king is known to have possessed a seal, in Edward I’s reign even serfs were required by statute to have them. At the centre of this development, and to some extent its motor, lay the king’s government. The king possessed permanently organized writing offices, the chancery, and then the exchequer too: they were becoming busier and busier. In Henry III’s reign, we can measure the amount of sealing wax which the chancery used. In the late 1220s it was getting through 3.63 lb per week; by the late 1260s the amount had gone up to 31.9 lb per week. Not only was the government issuing more documents than ever before; it was also systematically making copies and keeping them. Here the key date is 1199. In that year the chancery clerks began to keep copies, on rolls of parchment, of most of the letters – and certainly of all the important ones – sent out under the great seal. The survival of the chancery enrolments means that from 1199 historians know a great deal more about the routine of government than ever before.

These are developments of fundamental importance. The proliferation of records involved a shift from habitually memorizing things to writing them down. It meant that the whole population was now, in a sense, ‘participating in literacy’; even if they could not themselves read they became accustomed to seeing day-to-day business transacted through the medium of writing. Clearly this development of a literate mentality is closely linked with the cultural movement commonly known as the twelfth-century Renaissance. At first the power-houses of the new learning all lay abroad in the towns and cathedrals of Italy and France; but by the late twelfth century there were some schools of higher learning in England and by the 1220s two universities, first at Oxford and then at Cambridge, had been established. At Oxford there were schools where men could learn severely practical subjects such as conveyancing, administration, and elementary legal procedure. And throughout England the signs point to an increasing number of schools at all levels.

But are these profound developments associated with revolutionary changes in other aspects of social organization? Clearly, the production of all these written records means that society is becoming more bureaucratic, but does this mean that the relationships between classes are being conserved or being altered? Is the economic system changing? Is the political system changing? Or are both merely being more elaborately recorded?


2. Indenture with seals. This indenture records an agreement made in the 1220s between a lord and the men of Freiston and Butterwick (Lincs.). The fifty or so villagers whose seals are attached clearly lived in a society which was already thoroughly accustomed to using written legal documents

These are not questions which it is easy to answer. The cumulative nature of the evidence tends to deceive. For example, a particular form of relationship between men may first be clearly documented in the thirteenth century. But does this mean that the relationship itself originated in that century? Or that these types of relationship were first fixed in writing then? Or only that this is the earliest period from which the relevant documents happen to have survived? A case in point is the fact that the earliest known examples of a type of document known as the ‘indenture of retainer’ date from the thirteenth century. The indenture records the terms on which a man was engaged to serve his lord; it would normally specify his wages and, if it was a long-service contract, his retaining fee. On the basis of these documents, historians have decided that the ‘indentured retainer’ and the ‘contract army’ both came into existence towards the end of the thirteenth century, and that they were characteristic of the later Middle Ages, the period of ‘bastard feudalism’. Yet there is clear, though indirect, evidence that both contract armies and retainers receiving fee and wages were in existence at least as early as 1100. One further complication. Because the proliferation of documents occurred earlier and on a much greater scale in England than in Wales and Scotland, it is very much easier to write an institutional history of government, law, church, and economy for England than for the other parts of Britain. But it should also be borne in mind that throughout this period by far the greater part of the island’s population lived in England. Before going any further, it will be useful to give a brief outline of the main events, concentrating on those that were of greatest concern to the kings of England.

William I (1066–87)

After 1071, William’s hold on England was fairly secure. The Welsh and the Scots gave him little trouble. Scandinavian rulers continued to look upon England with acquisitive eyes but the ever-present threat of another Viking invasion never quite materialized. From 1071 to the end of his reign most of William’s attention was taken up by war and diplomacy on the Continent. Normandy was his homeland and far more vulnerable to sudden attack than was his island kingdom. Several of William’s neighbours were alarmed by his new power and took every opportunity to diminish it. At their head were King Philip of France, and Count Fulk le Rechin of Anjou. Their best opportunities were provided by William’s eldest son Robert (b. 1054). Recognized as the heir to Normandy as long ago as 1066, he had never been allowed to enjoy either money or power, and from 1078 onwards he became involved in a series of intrigues against his father. In quarrels between the king of France and the duke of Normandy the natural battlefield was the Vexin, a disputed territory lying on the north bank of the Seine between Rouen and Paris. The county of Maine, which William had conquered in 1063, played a similar role in the hostilities between Normandy and Anjou. Maine was to remain a bone of contention for the next two generations; the Vexin for much longer still (until 1203). Thus already in William’s reign it is possible to see the political pattern which was to dominate the next century: the intermingling of family dissension and frontier dispute. In this context the circumstances of William’s death are revealing. The garrison of the French fortress of Mantes made a raid into Normandy. William retaliated and while his troops sacked Mantes (July 1087) he received the injury from which he died. Robert was in rebellion at the time and chose to remain at the court of King Philip, while his younger brother William dutifully, and pointedly, was to be found in attendance at his father’s bedside. On 9 September 1087, William I died. His body was carried to his great church of St Stephen at Caen. Towards the end of his life he had grown very fat and when the attendants tried to force the body into the stone sarcophagus, it burst, filling the church with a foul smell. It was an unfortunate ending to the career of an unusually fortunate and competent king.

William II (1087–1100)

Whatever William’s last wishes may have been, there was a strong presumption that the eldest son should have his father’s patrimony, that is those lands which the father himself had inherited. Thus, despite his rebellion, Robert succeeded to Normandy. But a man’s acquisition, the land he himself had obtained whether by purchase, marriage, or conquest, could more easily be used to provide for other members of his family. Thus England, the Conqueror’s vast acquisition, was used to provide for his younger son, William. Naturally, Robert objected to this and perhaps, if it had not been for his rebellion, he would have succeeded to England as well.

What is clear is that the customs governing the succession to the throne were still flexible; they could – should – be bent in order to take account of political realities, for example the characters of the rival candidates. Thus those influential men, Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury among them, who decided to accept William Rufus as king of England, may well have judged that he would make a better ruler than his elder brother. In view of Robert’s record both before and after 1087 this would have been a reasonable judgement, yet within a few months of his accession Rufus found himself opposed by a powerful coalition of great barons, the magnates. According to the Anglo-Norman chronicler Orderic Vitalls, the rebels’ objective was to reunite England and Normandy, not for the sake of some principle of constitutional law but in order to ease their own political problems. Their dilemma was summed up in the words which Orderic placed in the mouth of the greatest of them, Odo of Bayeux. ‘How can we give proper service to two distant and mutually hostile lords? If we serve Duke Robert well we shall offend his brother William and he will deprive us of our revenues and honours in England. On the other hand if we obey King William, Duke Robert will deprive us of our patrimonies in Normandy.’ This was an argument which appealed to powerful vested interests and could very easily have unseated Rufus. If there were to be just one ruler of the joint Anglo-Norman realm then the elder brother’s claim was difficult to deny. Fortunately for Rufus, his brother’s case went almost by default: Robert stayed in Normandy, leaving his supporters in the lurch. Nonetheless the 1088 revolt, despite its swift collapse, does reveal just how precarious was the position of a king of England who was not also duke of Normandy.

Taking the 48 years (1087–1135) of the reigns of William II and Henry I as a whole, it can be seen that in England the rebellions (1088, 1095, 1101, 1102) cluster in the two periods (some 15 years in all) when the king was not duke, that is 1087–96 and 1100–6. Obviously, it was not in the king’s interest that England and Normandy should be under separate rulers. But neither was it in the interest of the aristocracy. As Odo of Bayeux’s speech makes plain, they had too much at risk to welcome instability. Whenever the cross-Channel kingdom did break up into its constituent parts, this ushered in a period of conflict which was only settled when one ruler ousted the other. Thus the primary concern of a king of England was to win and hold Normandy.

In 1089 Rufus laid claim to the duchy. With English silver he was able to buy support and he campaigned there with some success. But his hold on England still remained insecure; he faced a conspiracy in 1095. Next year the tension was resolved, at any rate temporarily, in a totally unforeseeable manner. The astonishing success of Pope Urban II’s preaching tour created a climate of opinion in which thousands decided to join an expedition aimed at recovering Jerusalem from the Muslims. For Robert Curthose this offered an honourable and exciting way out of his increasingly difficult domestic political position. In order to equip himself and his retinue for the long march, he pawned Normandy to William for 10,000 marks.

The new duke’s next task was to recover Maine and the Vexin, lost during Robert’s slack rule. By 1099, this had been successfully accomplished. Rufus had restored his father’s kingdom to its former frontiers; indeed in Scotland, by installing Edgar on the throne in 1097, he intervened more effectively than even his father had done.

One early twelfth-century author, Geoffrey Gaimar, looked upon William as a model ruler. But Gaimar wrote in French. Unfortunately for William’s reputation, it was history written by churchmen and in Latin which was to carry the greater weight. Serious-minded ecclesiastics, accustomed to the conventional piety and sober discretion of his father’s court, were appalled by Rufus’s, by its ostentatious extravagance, by its gaiety, and by the new fashions – long hair for example – which seemed to them to be both effeminate and licentious. Rufus never married. According to the Welsh Chronicle of Princes, ‘he used concubines and because of that died without an heir’. He may have been sceptical of the claims of religion; undoubtedly he treated the Church as a rich corporation which needed soaking. He was rarely in a hurry to appoint bishops and abbots, for during vacancies he could help himself to the Church’s revenues. In carrying out these profitable policies Rufus relied on the ingenious aid of a quick-witted and worldly clerk, Ranulf Flambard, whom he eventually made bishop of Durham.

Above all Rufus’s reputation has suffered because in 1093, when he thought he was dying, he appointed a saintly scholar Anselm of Bec as archbishop of Canterbury (after having kept the see vacant for four years). What made this appointment so disastrous from William’s point of view was the fact that it occurred at a time when a European movement for Church reform – the Gregorian reform – had created a controversial atmosphere in which holy men were only too likely to become political radicals. In 1095 William called a council at Rockingham to deal with the matters in dispute between him and Anselm. To the consternation of all, Archbishop Anselm appealed to Rome, arguing that as archbishop of Canterbury he could not be judged in a secular court. The rise of the Papacy in the second half of the eleventh century, with its claim to the first loyalty of prelates, had brought a new and disturbing element on to the political stage. If churchmen were to believe that their obligations to God, as defined by the vicar of St Peter, were to override their duty to the king, then the customary structure of the world would have been turned upside down.

Anselm’s case in favour of an autonomous spiritual hierarchy was a wellreasoned one; on his own premises he had the better of the argument. But Rufus had a good case too; not only that, he had power – pitted against the material resources available to a masterful king, a scholarly archbishop of Canterbury was in a very weak position indeed. William continued to harass the archbishop, and never showed any sympathy for his attempts to reform the Church. Eventually Anselm could bear it no longer. In 1097 he sailed from Dover, leaving the estates of Canterbury to be taken into the king’s hand. In the short run the king had gained from the quarrel. In 1100 he enjoyed the revenues of three bishoprics and 12 abbeys. Nor was there as yet any sign that the arguments had undermined men’s belief in the awesome powers of an anointed king. Even Eadmer, the Canterbury monk who wrote a Life of Anselm, remarked of Rufus that ‘the wind and the sea seemed to obey him’. Indeed, Eadmer went on, ‘in war and in the acquisition of territory he enjoyed such success that you would think the whole world smiling upon him’. Whether, in reality, William II’s position in 1100 was quite so strong is another matter; it suited moralistic chroniclers to portray him as a self-confident, boastful king who was struck down just when he seemed to be at the very pinnacle of success. During the summer of 1100 everyone must have known that the peaceful interlude of Duke Robert’s absence was about to end. The crusader was on his way home, accompanied by a rich wife and basking in the prestige due to a man who had fought his way into the Holy City. When Curthose reclaimed his inheritance, who could tell what would happen or what line the Anglo-Norman magnates would take? As it happened, on 2 August 1100 a hunting accident in the New Forest brought the life of this forceful and much-maligned king to an abrupt end. Also, as it happened, William’s younger brother was in the New Forest on the day the king died.

Henry I (1100–35)

As soon as he knew Rufus was dead, Henry moved fast. He rode to Winchester and took possession of the treasury. Then he went straight on to Westminster where he was crowned on 5 August. This speed of action has prompted speculation that Henry knew that his brother was going to die, that he had ‘arranged the accident’. But no contemporary makes the charge and if Henry had planned so cold-blooded a crime his timing is likely to have been different. The impending war between Rufus and Curthose could be expected to end with the defeat and perhaps the elimination of one of them. In other words a delayed assassination would have opened up to the assassin the prospect of obtaining both England and Normandy. As it was, Rufus’s death in August 1100 meant that Henry had to act with phenomenal speed merely to seize control of just one of the two parts of the Anglo-Norman realm. A man capable of waiting for so long before he struck would surely have waited a year or two longer.

A few weeks later, Robert arrived back in Normandy. Henry had to prepare to meet the inevitable invasion. His policy was to buy support by granting favours and wide-ranging concessions. This was a policy proclaimed on the day of his coronation, when he issued a charter of liberties denouncing his brother’s oppressive practices and promising good government. On the other hand the urgent need to organize his defences meant that Henry could not afford to cause too much confusion. This was a time for gestures and manifestos, but it was not the moment to overturn a whole regime. The reality of the situation was that his elder brother had left him a ready-made court and administration and Henry had little choice but to take them over.

When Duke Robert landed at Portsmouth in July 1101, many of the greatest barons in England, led by Robert of Bellme and his brothers, flocked to his side. But Rufus’s court circle, Robert of Meulan at their head, remained loyal to Henry; so also did the English Church. Both sides drew back and negotiated. Henry was to keep England and pay his brother a pension of £2,000 a year.

Having survived the crisis of 1101, Henry set about ensuring that it would not recur. The essential first step was the overthrow of the house of Montgomery (Bellême). In 1102 he captured Robert of Bellême’s chief strongholds in the Welsh marches and then banished him. Two years later he confiscated the lands of William of Mortain. But Earls Robert and William, like others in their position, possessed in their Norman properties a base from which to organize the recovery of their English lands. By perpetuating the separation of England and Normandy the treaty of 1101 had ensured the continuance of political instability. So in a rerun of the history of the previous reign we find a king of England, first on the defensive, then going over to the attack. At the battle of Tinchebray (1106) the issue was decided. Duke Robert himself was captured and spent the last 28 years of his life as his brother’s prisoner.

Although in the first years of his reign Henry was preoccupied with Norman affairs, he was not as free to concentrate on them as he would have liked. Traditional royal rights over the Church were threatened by the new ideas associated with the Gregorian reform movement. The reformers did not only wish to purify the moral and spiritual life of the clergy; in order to do this, they believed that it was also necessary to free the Church from secular control. The most hated symbol of this control was lay investiture, a ceremony in which a new abbot or bishop received the ring and staff of office from the hands of the secular prince who had appointed him. Although the first papal decree against lay investiture had been issued as long ago as 1059 and more prohibitions had been published since, no one in England seems to have been aware of their existence until Anselm returned in the autumn of 1100. While in exile he had learned of the papal attitude to lay investiture. Thus although he himself had been invested by Rufus in 1093, he now refused either to do homage to Henry or to consecrate those prelates whom Henry had invested. This placed the king in a difficult position. Bishops and abbots were great landowners and key figures in central and local administration; he needed their assistance and had to be sure of their loyalty. On the other hand, unlike Rufus, he was unwilling to provoke a quarrel, so for years he found it more convenient to postpone the problem rather than try to solve it. Not until 1107 was the matter settled.

Henry renounced lay investiture, but prelates were to continue to do homage for their fiefs. In practice, the king’s wishes continued to be the decisive factor in the making of bishops. To some extent, it can be said that Henry gave up the form but preserved the reality of control. When Anselm died in 1109 he kept the see of Canterbury vacant for five years. Yet he had lost something and he knew it. In the fierce war of propaganda which accompanied the ‘Investiture Contest’ the Gregorians had insisted that the king was a layman, nothing more, and as such he was inferior to all priests, for priests were concerned with the soul and the king only with the body. The Church could no longer tolerate the old idea that anointed kings were sacred deputies of God. In giving up lay investiture Henry was acknowledging the secular nature of his office. It was an important moment in the history of kingship.


Map 1. The Anglo-Norman realm 1066–1154

Once Normandy had been conquered and a compromise solution found to the investiture dispute, Henry’s main concern was to hold on to what he had. Although he promoted some ‘new men’, he knew that political stability depended on his cultivation of good relations with the aristocracy. In Orderic’s words, ‘he treated the magnates with honour and generosity, adding to their wealth and estates, and by placating them in this way, he won their loyalty.’ A direct threat to Henry’s position came from the claim of Curthose’s young son, William Clito (b. 1102) that he, not Henry, was the rightful duke of Normandy. This rival claim, coupled with Normandy’s long land frontier, meant that the duchy remained the most vulnerable part of his empire. After 1106 Henry spent more than half the rest of his reign there in opposition to the traditional enemies of the Norman dukes, notably Louis VI of France (king 1108–37), and Fulk V of Anjou (count 1109–28). He organized a protective ring of alliances – no less than eight of his illegitimate daughters were married to neighbouring princes, from Alexander of Scotland in the north to Rotrou count of Perche in the south. This diplomatic pattern lends some slight credibility to William of Malmesbury’s assertion that for Henry sex was a matter not of pleasure but of policy. The end result of all this activity was that Henry kept Normandy and for this reason, since it turned out to be a struggle which only maintained the status quo, historians have not been inclined to take it very seriously. But for Henry it was a very serious business indeed, a war for survival which at least once, in 1118–19, he came perilously close to losing.

The preoccupation with the defence of Normandy was a serious matter in England too, and not just for the great landowners who held estates on the Continent. Castles, garrisons, diplomacy, and war all cost a great deal of money. The connection is spelt out in theAnglo-Saxon Chronicle’s entry for 1118. ‘King Henry spent the whole of this year in Normandy on account of the war with the king of France, count of Anjou and count of Flanders … England paid dearly for this in numerous taxes from which there was no relief all year.’ The king’s long absences and his urgent need for money were the motors behind the increasing elaboration and sophistication of the machinery of government. While the king was away, England was administered by a vice-regal committee. Twice a year this committee met ‘at the exchequer’, that is, it met to audit the accounts of the sheriffs over the famous chequered cloth. Most of the routine administrative work, in particular the collection of revenue, was supervised by Roger of Salisbury, a man who, in contrast to the flamboyant Flambard, seems to have been the archetypal bureaucrat, competent and discreet.

The death of William, his only legitimate son, in 1120 in the wreck of the White Ship brought Henry’s whole carefully contrived edifice tumbling down. From then on, the succession problem dominated the politics of the reign. Less than three months after William’s death, Henry married a new wife but the heir so desperately hoped for was never born. So although Henry is said to have acknowledged more than twenty bastards, he was survived by only one legitimate child, his daughter Matilda. When her husband, Emperor Henry V of Germany, died in 1125, Henry recalled her to his court and made the barons swear to accept her as heir to the Anglo-Norman realm. Then in 1127 Henry received a fresh shock. William Clito was recognized as count of Flanders. If he were able to employ the wealth of Flanders in pursuit of his claim to Normandy, then the outlook for his uncle was black indeed. At this critical juncture Henry approached Fulk V of Anjou with a proposal for a marriage alliance between Matilda and Fulk’s son and heir, Geoffrey Plantagenet. In June 1128 Matilda, somewhat against her will, was married to the 14-year-old youth. Unquestionably, Count Fulk had scored a diplomatic triumph: the first vital step in the Angevin take-over of the Anglo-Norman realm.

By 1135 Henry I was quarrelling openly and violently with Geoffrey and Matilda. This had the effect of driving those magnates who were loyal to Henry into opposition to the Angevins. When the old king died, these magnates would inevitably find it difficult to come to terms with his designated heirs. In this sense it was Henry himself who provoked the succession dispute which followed his death. Even at the end of his life he still wanted his daughter and son-in-law to succeed, but he had been unable to bring himself to take the measures which would have enabled them to do so. Henry I had been an outstandingly able and successful king, the master politician of his age, but even he failed to cope with the tensions of the succession question. It was for this reason that Henry of Huntingdon portrayed Henry as a king in a permanent state of anxiety. ‘Each of his triumphs only made him worry lest he lose what he had gained; therefore though he seemed to be the most fortunate of kings, he was in truth the most miserable.’

Stephen (1135–54)

When the news came that Henry I lay dying, the old king’s chosen heirs were in their own dominions, either in Anjou or in Maine. But his nephew, Stephen of Blois, was in his county of Boulogne. From there, it was but a day-trip to the south-east of England. This accident of geography gave Stephen a head start. Having first secured the support of the Londoners, he then rode to Winchester, where his brother, Henry of Blois, was bishop. With Henry’s help he obtained both the treasury at Winchester, and Roger of Salisbury’s acceptance of his claim to be king. Then all that remained was to persuade the archbishop of Canterbury to anoint him. This was done by arguing that the oath to Matilda – which they had all sworn – was void because it had been exacted by force, and by spreading a fictitious story about the old king’s deathbed change of mind. On 22 December 1135, Stephen was crowned and anointed king at Westminster.

The political structure of the Anglo-Norman realm meant that once Stephen had been recognized as king in England, he was in a very strong position in Normandy as well. From then on, the Norman barons could give their allegiance to someone else only at the risk of losing their English estates. Above all, those with most to lose felt that they had to support Stephen. So, right from the start of their campaign to win their inheritance, Geoffrey and Matilda found themselves opposed by the most powerful magnates of the Anglo-Norman state.

In the west the news of Henry’s death precipitated a great revolt against those colonizers who had been turning Wales into what one contemporary called ‘a second England’, but in England itself the first two and a half years of Stephen’s reign passed peacefully enough: indeed they were rather more trouble-free than the opening years of both his predecessors’ reigns had been. The first serious blow came in the summer of 1138 when Robert of Gloucester decided to join his half-sister’s cause. Robert’s defection not only meant that Stephen lost control of some important strong points in Normandy, it was also a signal that the Angevins were on the point of carrying the struggle to England. As Stephen waited for the blow to fall he began to lose his grip on the situation, above all in the north where King David I of Scotland took over Northumbria.

He offended his brother Henry of Blois by not making him archbishop of Canterbury; he arrested three influential ‘civil service’ bishops, including Roger of Salisbury, and thus enabled Henry of Blois to claim that ecclesiastical liberties had been infringed. In the autumn of 1139, when the Empress – as Matilda was commonly known – landed at Arundel and seemed to be in Stephen’s grasp, he allowed her to go free to join Robert of Gloucester at Bristol. From now on there were two rival courts in England. Had he imprisoned her, the cause of her husband and sons would have gained yet more support. The fact that Matilda was a woman had given Stephen his opportunity, but it also, in a chivalrous age, presented him with insoluble problems.

In February 1141 Stephen rashly accepted battle at Lincoln, and fought on bravely when he might have escaped. As a result, he was captured and put in prison in Bristol. Henry of Blois, now acting as papal legate, openly went over to the Empress’s side and in the summer she was able to enter London. But she spurned the peace terms worked out by the legate and offended the Londoners by her tactless behaviour. When Stephen’s queen, Matilda of Boulogne, advanced towards the city, the Londoners took up arms and drove the Empress out. Thus, the planned coronation at Westminster never took place. Matilda never became queen of England. A few months later Robert of Gloucester was captured and since he was the mainstay of her party, Matilda had to agree to an exchange of prisoners: Stephen for Robert. The Empress had thrown away a won position; England remained a divided country.

In Normandy, events had taken a very different course. Geoffrey of Anjou stayed behind to maintain the pressure on the duchy and to look after his own interests in Anjou. A series of campaigns from 1141 to 1144 ended with the surrender of Rouen and Geoffrey’s formal investiture as duke. But the count of Anjou’s single-minded concentration on the conquest of Normandy led to him turning his back on England.

Here the civil war settled down into a kind of routine. Neither side could make much headway at a time when the art of war revolved around castles, and the defenders generally held the advantage. In October 1147 Robert of Gloucester died. Disheartened, the Empress left England early in 1148, never to return.

In 1150 Geoffrey of Anjou associated his son Henry with him in the rule of the duchy. Next year this arrangement was legitimized when Louis VII (king of France 1137–80), in return for concessions in the Vexin, decided to recognize Henry as duke. At this point, it must have looked as though the old link between England and Normandy had at last been broken. Yet neither side would give up its claims and though there seemed to be a stalemate in England, on the Continent the situation turned out to be remarkably fluid. Geoffrey of Anjou died, still under 40, leaving his eldest son in control of both Normandy and Anjou. In March 1152 Louis VII divorced his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eight weeks later she married Henry, who in consequence could now add control of the vast duchy of Aquitaine to his other Continental possessions.

Henry’s marriage was a great coup – yet it also gave fresh hope to Stephen. Louis VII organized a grand coalition of all Henry’s rivals. As a result, the summer of 1152 saw Henry fighting on four fronts at once – in Aquitaine, in Normandy, against rebels in Anjou, and against Stephen in England. One well-informed Norman chronicler tells us that the betting was that Henry would not survive. At this juncture, his decision to sail to England and carry the fight to Stephen impressed contemporaries by its sheer audacity. Even so there was little Henry could do to break the stalemate in England and his whole position was still precariously overextended when the death of Stephen’s heir, Eustace, in August 1153 transformed everything. Stephen’s second son, William, had never expected to be king and so the way was opened for a negotiated settlement.

The barons on both sides had long been anxious for peace. Their landed estates made them too vulnerable to the ravages of war for them to be in favour of protracted hostilities. At times they had ignored the wishes of the chief protagonists and made local truces of their own. So there was a general sense of relief when Stephen and Henry bowed to the wishes of their advisers.

By the treaty of Westminster (December 1153) it was agreed that Stephen should hold the kingdom for life and that he should adopt Henry as his heir. William was to inherit all Stephen’s baronial lands. This, in essence, was a repeat of the peace terms proposed by Henry of Blois in 1141. Matilda’s inability to be magnanimous in victory had cost the country another 12 years of civil war. Now at last Stephen could rule unchallenged, but he was a tired man and did not live long to enjoy it. On 25 October 1154 he died and was buried by the side of his wife and elder son in the monastery they had founded at Faversham.

Stephen had been a competent army commander and a brave knight – but perhaps too gallant for his own good. He was a more attractive character than any of the Norman kings – but he lacked their masterfulness. Without it he was unable to dominate either his court or his kingdom. Moreover he spent very little time in Normandy; only one visit, in 1137, during his entire reign. This stands in marked contrast to the itineraries of his predecessors and, in view of the ‘cross-Channel structure’ of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy, was certainly a mistake. In this sense the ruler from the house of Blois can be said to have failed because he was too ‘English’ a king to realize that England was only a part of a greater whole.

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